The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives

The Meaning of Life: Religious, Philosophical, Transhumanist, and Scientific Perspectives is the first book to summarize the writings of the important contemporary theologians, philosophers, and scientists on the question of the meaning of life. In addition the book deals with the relevance of death for the question as well the huge importance that the potential scientific elimination of death will have for humanity’s concern regarding meaning. Finally the book considers the question in the context of cosmic evolution and deep time, offering in the end an answer to the question of whether life is or is not ultimately meaningful.

image-left The book is a great survey of philosophical, theological, scientific, and futuristic technological ideas and theories of some of the most prolific thinkers of humanity on the topic of meaning of life! The author affirms the importance, meaningfulness, and potential answerability of the question. the factuality of death in human’s life struggle is vital in answering the question. despite the great strikes science made unveiling many secrets about our reality and the universe, still obvious conducive answer to the ultimate meaning is far away. With a clear taxonomy to the possible answer to the meaning question, the author starts his book. claiming that the answer to the question falls into one of three categories 1) Negative (nihilistic) answers - Life is meaningless where he break that classification further between Affirmation and Acceptance of the meaninglessness of life. 2) Agnostic (skeptical) answers - where the claim is we don’t know if life has meaning. divided to claims of unintelligibility of the question, and inability to answer the question. 3) and finally, Positive answers - life is meaningful whether we can provide a theistic answer transcending from a Supernatural being, or non-theistic natural answer found in the natural world, a natural objective meaning can be discovered by individuals or subjective created by individuals.

Religious answers provide an emotionally appealing response to the meaning question. it attempt to solve the main problems of life (evil, suffering, death, and meaning) by appealing to a higher supernatural power. the typical argument is suffering will be remedied, and universal justice will be satisfied in the afterlife. The challenging to religious answer is the plurality of religious practices and faiths, which one we should embrace, especially when the core belief system is different. How similar is Shankara’s absolute non-dualistic Vedanta to the beliefs of typical Hindu? - the answer is not much, even individuals within same religion have different understandings of their faiths. The story of the most famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy crisis of meaning was a starting point for the motivation of the religious answer. Tolstoy wrote to make money, take care of his family, and to forget questions about the meaning of life. But later—when seized with questions about the meaning of life and death—he came to regard his literary work as a waste of time. he became paralyzed, stopped working, and at time wanted to end his life. Tolstoy suggests that the feeling of meaninglessness comes more often to the learned than to the simple people. Thus he began to look to the working class for answers, individuals who both ask and answer the question of the meaning of life. He notes that they did not derive meaning from pleasure since they had so little of it, and yet they thought suicide to be a great evil. It seemed then that the meaning of life was not found in any rational, intellectual knowledge but rather “in an irrational knowledge. This irrational knowledge was faith. He argued that science and rational knowledge only give us facts it relates the finite to the finite, it does not relate a finite life to anything infinite. hence the only way is to adopt non-rational solution provided by faith, Ironically the non-rational faith is rational since it provides a way to live! Antony Flew reconstructed Tolstoy’s argument best in essay titled “Tolstoi and the Meaning of Life” as follows:

  1. if all ends in death then life is meaningless;
  2. all ends in death;
  3. thus life is meaningless.
  4. if life is meaningless then there are no desires that are reasonable to fulfill
  5. thus there are no desires that are reasonable to fulfill.

Swenson rejects the view that meaning and happiness consist of acquiring any number of good things, primarily because this makes them dependent upon particular circumstances. Instead, the meaning of life must be something that underlies life and that all can attain. God is this underlying unity in which one can find meaning and happiness. and there is the argument from superiority of theism, so unless one is certain theism is false, one might live as if it is true. Specifically from a Christian point of view, life is only meaningful if 1) it has both positive intrinsic value and is on the whole valuable for the person living it 2) contains some non-trivial, subjective, valuable purposes that are engaging for that person and 3) we have immortal souls. Without a god, there would be no objective moral principles which provide meaning to life. without a belief in a god, we would not be sufficiently inspired to be moral, and thereby not able to find meaning. there is also the argument from Life Absurdity without a god. The main problem with any of the proposed religious answers to the question of meaning is that religious beliefs may be false, and gods may be imaginary after all, there is no convincing evidence for the existence of gods, an after life, or other supernatural phenomena; as the gods and the afterlife are unseen and miracles suspect. It does us no good to imagine that the meaning of life is to know, love, and serve the gods in this life, and to be with them forever in heaven if there are no gods or heaven. Still, any religious story or belief could be true. A god could have dictated the Koran to Mohammed or given commandments to Moses on a mountaintop. Any of these stories could be true and their explanation of the meaning of life might then follow. But there seems a good chance that such stories are fictional. In sum, religious beliefs are problematic and living as if religion is true may be ill-advised. For these reasons, it does not seem prudent to ground meaning in religious beliefs. Although any religious story, especially in their more sophisticated versions, could be true, religious answers to the question of life’s meaning are suspect because the truth of religion and its usefulness are suspect. And if we are to ground meaning on a stable foundation, it is problematic to start with dubious claims. from this point of the view the author concludes search for meaning without appealing to invisible, hidden, supernatural entities. Its a natural start for whom religious answers are not available, but also there are reasons to adopt a neutral starting point even one has religious believes. by starting with a think set of assumptions, rather than with more philosophically problematic ones that include gods, souls, and afterlives, we will be more assured of our conclusions and they will have broader appeal.

Where there is doubt, there is freedom! the most basic reason to be skeptical of an answer of the question of meaning, there cannot logically be an answer to it. insofar as there cannot be anything outside everything to give life meaning. we don’t know if the question is meaningless or not. as our minds didn’t evolve to answer. theological answers do not answer the super-ultimate why question. The super-ultimate why question is meaningless since there cannot be something outside of everything that explains everything. there is no reason to think there is a purpose or final end for all life and even if there were one - fulfilling a god’s purpose may be - it would be irrelevant to the meaning question since it would be a purpose that is not ours. we have no choice but to be part of such plan in such case it does not matter what we do or we must choose whether to be part of it, which puts meaning in our choices and values. all of this leads us to ask what is the purpose or meaning of the gods’ plans? which will inevitably leads to indefinite chain of why questions, thus it is logically impossible to answer the ultimate why question. in the end the question of meaning reduced into the question of how we should live. god’s purpose doesn’t grantee meaning for us. The question of the meaning of everything makes sense. There cannot by definition be anything outside of everything that gives it meaning since there is nothing outside of everything, but we can still meaningfully ask: what does the whole thing mean? That question may be unanswerable, but if there is an answer it comes from within life. Rather than accept meaninglessness or try to discover meaning, we should create meaning. it may help us live a better life but in the end does anything emanate meaning?

Suffering in life and death robs meaning out of life. accepting nihilistic view to the meaning of life is self-defeating and useless. Finding meaning by affirming nihilism is a brave response but it is not all that different than accepting nihilism at the end. the question become what do we gain by embracing nihilism?. Camus’ Sisyphus supposedly found happiness in his revolt, but one has to wonder whether that suggestion is mere romanticism. Rejecting nihilism seems intellectually dishonest, passively accepting it appears fatalistic, actively rejecting it with Camus is futile, embracing it looks pointless and realizing it is unbearable.

May be then the meaning to life is individual subjective view to their existence. May be life can have terrestrial meaning even if we cannot show that existence itself is ultimately worthwhile, the subjective view thinkers argue that subjective meaning to life is enough for most people, the problem is ordinary people are not content with simple subjective meaning to their life. if anything it is the opposite, people are constantly searching for an ultimate objective meaning to life, we see it in history, art, philosophy, religion, all forms of human activities emanates from the desire to have a cosmic meaning to our existence! .. the subjective meaning could be from vision for how to live our life, to find meaning in the simple activities we practice in life. Russell argued that persons free of metaphysical narratives can find some meaning in the beauty they create and the truth they find. Where Singer argued we create meaning by creating and loving; where Klemke claimed that we can live without appeal by finding subjective meaning in art, work, and love. All these thinkers maintain that creating meaning is all we have left once objective meaning is lost.

A moral life could provide meaning to life, or may be intellectual and aesthetic value for fully meaningful lives. But all these values may be necessary for meaning but not sufficient. We could live virtuous lives and still question life’s meaningfulness. perhaps we can find meaning in our relationships, loving our fellows and the derived happiness could be the meaning to life. Wolf combines subjective engagement with the objective values of the moral, intellectual, and artistic domains. It is not enough that there are valuable things in life; one must be engaged in and passionate about their pursuit to fully achieve meaning. may be a combined view for both objective and subjective meaning can be found by active engagement in worthwhile projects that do no harm. Objective-meaning seekers are confident of the existence of objective values. these values gives us reason to live in certain ways and provide limited meaning and consolation in a universe where we are always haunted by the specter of the death and meaninglessness. we should not ask what meaning objectively good things have, for that involves us in an infinite regress. or may be we can find objective meaning in the roots of our biological exitance, connecting the objective values of love, work, and play to psychology and neurophysiology. Life is meaningful because there are good, true, and beautiful things in the world. There is great unanimity that personal relationships, productive work, and enjoyable play are meaningful activities. They are meaningful precisely because in each we may discover or create goodness, beauty, and truth. Enduring suffering nobly, self-expression, and leaving a legacy also exemplify specific activities that allow us to participate in truth, beauty, and goodness Together these thinkers disclose a universal theme. People find meaning in life by their involvement with, connection to, and engagement in, the good, the true, and the beautiful. We should be satisfied.

Everywhere we go, every thought we have, every happiness, every joy, every triumph—it is always with us. There to intrude on every meaningful moment, tainting the truth, the beauty, and the goodness that we experience. It is to the specter of death. If death is the end of an individual human life, the question naturally arises whether this is a good, bad, or indifferent thing. The argument of Epicurus states that being dead cannot be bad for someone, and thus the fear of death is misplaced. we can be harmed by things we don’t experience, but it is hard to see how someone can be harmed if that someone is non-existent. even if death is bad for us and nihilism is the real possibility of existence, nonetheless we give life subjective meaning by reflecting on our life and death. If we cannot do anything about death, we adapt and say we prefer it; but when we can do something about it, almost everyone will rejoice. When the elixir is real, you can be sure it will be used. At the moment we do not know how to prevent death, but we have some scientific insights that could lead in that direction. If some individuals still want to die when death is preventable, we should respect their autonomy, but for those of us who do not want to die, our autonomy should be honored as well. Thus we agree with Bostrom; we should rid ourselves of the dragon—death should be optional.

Many serious Thinkers like Kurzweil, Moravec, Kaku, Brain, and others foresee that technology may enable humans to overcome death. Searle and Lanier argue that it is exceedingly unlikely that robots could be conscious, thus we will not become immortal by uploading ourselves into them. Rubin and Joy believe that technologies for immorality will probably be developed but find the prospect undesirable primarily because it signals the end of the human race as we know it. realistic prospect that death will be eliminated in the future is something humans have never had before. if you could choose immortality, should you? Alternatively, if our society could choose immortality, should they?. we should respect the right of autonomous individuals to choose for themselves. If an effective pill that stops or reverses aging becomes available at your local pharmacy, then you should be free to use it. But if individuals prefer to die in the hope that the gods will revive them in paradise, thereby granting them reprieve from everlasting torment, then we ought to respect that too. Individuals should be able to end their lives whenever they want, in good health, in bad health, after death has become optional for them, or whenever.

Will Durant wondered if there is something suggestive about the cycle of a human life which sheds light on meaning, a theme explored in his 1929 book The Mansions of Philosophy. He grants that “life is in its basis a mystery, a river flowing from an unseen source; and in its development an infinite subtlety too complex for thought, much less for utterance.”. Yet we seek answers nonetheless. Undeterred by the difficulty of his task, Durant suggests that reflection on the microcosm of a human life might yield insights about the meaning of all life and death. Thus he looks at a typical human life cycle for clues about cosmic meaning. In children, Durant saw curiosity, growth, urgency, playfulness, and discontent. In later youth, the struggle continues as we learn to read, work, love, and learn of the world’s evils. In middle age, we are often consumed by work and family life, and for the first time, we see the reality of death. Still, in family life, people usually find great pleasure and the best of all human conditions. Durant wonders if we must die for life. If we are not individuals but cells in life’s body, then we die so that life remains strong, death removing the rubbish as the new life created defeats death. This perpetuation of life gives life meaning. individual dies, but life goes on endlessly forward.

Here is an old man on the bed of death, harassed with helpless friends and wailing relatives. What a terrible sight it is - this thin frame with loosened and cracking flesh, this toothless mouth in a bloodless face, this tongue that cannot speak, these eyes that cannot see! To this pass youth has come, after all its hopes and trials; to this pass middle age, after all its torment and its toil. To this pass health and strength and joyous rivalry; this arm once struck great blows and fought for victory in virile games. To this pass knowledge, science, wisdom: for seventy years this man with pain and effort gathered knowledge; his brain became the storehouse of a varied experience, the center of a thousand subtleties of thought and deed; his heart through suffering learned gentleness as his mind learned understanding; seventy years he grew from an animal into a man capable of seeking truth and creating beauty. But death is upon him, poisoning him, choking him, congealing his blood, gripping his heart, bursting his brain, rattling in his throat. Death win. Outside on the green boughs birds twitter, and Chantecler sings his hymn to the sun. Light streams across the fields; buds open and stalks confidently lift their heads; the sap mounts in the trees. Here are children: what is it that makes them so joyous, running madly over the dew-wet grass, laughing, calling, pursuing, eluding, panting for breath, inexhaustible? What energy, what spirit and happiness! What do they care about death? They will learn and grow and love and struggle and create, and lift life up one little notch, perhaps, before they die. And when they pass they will cheat death with children, with parental care that will make their offspring finer than themselves. There in the garden’s twilight lovers pass, thinking themselves unseen; their quiet words mingle with the murmur of insects calling to their mates; the ancient hunger speaks through eager and through lowered eyes, and a noble madness courses through clasped hands and touching lips. Life wins. ~Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny, 407-08.

The simplest meaning of life then is joy—the exhilaration of experience itself, of physical well-being; sheer satisfaction of muscle and sense, of palate and ear and eye. If the child is happier than the man it is because it has more body and less soul, and understands that nature comes before philosophy; it asks for no further meaning to its arms and legs than their abounding use … Even if life had no meaning except for its moments of beauty … that would be enough; this plodding thru the rain, or fighting the wind, or tramping the snow under the sun, or watching the twilight turn into night, is reason a-plenty for loving life. ~Durant, On the meaning of life, 124-25.

Consider for a moment what our planet is and what it might be. At present, for most, there is toil and hunger, constant danger, more hatred than love. There could be a happy world, where co-operation was more in evidence than competition, and monotonous work is done by machines, where what is lovely in nature is not destroyed to make room for hideous machines whose sole business is to kill, and where to promote joy is more respected than to produce mountains of corpses. Do not say this is impossible: it is not. It waits only for men to desire it more than the infliction of torture. There is an artist imprisoned in each one of us. Let him loose to spread joy everywhere ~

Related Books

  • Robert Solomon, The Big Questions
  • Philosophy and Happiness, ed. Lisa Bortolotti
  • The Search For Meaning In Life, ed. Robert F. Davidson
  • Oswald Hanfling, A Quest for Meaning
  • The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D Klemke
  • Questioning Matters, ed. Daniel Kolak
  • Life, death, and meaning, ed. David Benatar
  • Robert Solomon, The Big Questio
  • Irving Singer, Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value
  • The Meaning of Life, ed. E.D. Klemke and Cahn
  • Raymond Belliotti, What is the Meaning of Human Life?
  • Thaddeus Metz, “The Good, the True and the Beautiful: Toward a Unified Account of Great Meaning in Life.”
  • Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich
  • Rodney Brooks, Flesh and Machines: How Robots Will Change Us
  • Ray Kurzweil, The Age of Spiritual Machines
  • Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution And The Meaning of Life
  • Hans Moravec, Robot: Mere Machine to Transcendent Mind
  • Charles T. Rubin, “Artificial Intelligence and Human Nature,”
  • Michio Kaku, Visions: How Science Will Revolutionize the 21st Century
  • Will Durant, “Ten Steps Up From the Jungle,”
  • Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature
  • Paul Davies, The Mind of God: The Scientific Basis for a Rational World
  • Julian Huxley, ‘Evolution: At the Mind’s Cinema’
  • Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays
  • Will Durant, On the meaning of life
  • Will Durant, The Mansions of Philosophy: A Survey of Human Life and Destiny

About the Author

John G. Messerly received his PhD in philosophy in 1992. He has taught at St. Louis University and The University of Texas at Austin. He is currently an Affiliated member of the Evolution, Cognition, and Complexity Group localized at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel in Belgium, and an Affiliate Scholar of the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. His book, Piaget’s Conception of Evolution, was a Choice Outstanding Academic Book, and he contributed the article on Piaget’s biology to the Cambridge Companion to Piaget. His current interest is in how trends in technological and cosmic evolution shed light on meaning in life. His publications have appeared in Salon, Scientia Salon and Humanity+ Magazine. He blogs on issues of evolution, futurism, and the meaning of life at:

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